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February is American Heart Month

by Dr. Susan V. Karol, Chief Medical Officer, Indian Health Service

A healthy heart is key to overall well-being. Unfortunately, the leading cause of death among American Indians and Native Alaskans is heart disease. Keeping your heart healthy can help you avoid serious complications, such as heart disease, heart attacks and heart failure.

Your heart is a muscle that acts as a pump to circulate blood carrying oxygen and nutrients to the rest of your body. Like other muscles, it needs oxygen and nutrients to work properly. When the arteries supplying blood to your heart become diseased, blood is unable to get to the heart muscle and may cause injury (this is known as a "heart attack") and damage to the muscle. If a large amount of the heart muscle is damaged, the heart may not be able to pump enough blood to the rest of the body.

Learn the warning signs of a heart attack:

  • Tightness in the chest, chest pain, and/or chest discomfort
  • Upper body pain or discomfort in the arms, back, neck, jaw or upper abdomen
  • Shortness of breath
  • Nausea, lightheadedness and/or cold sweats

You can greatly reduce your risk of heart disease, or slow its progress, by taking preventive steps. Making small, gradual changes can make a big difference in your health. By following these healthy lifestyle tips, you may decrease your risk for heart disease:

  • Getting your blood pressure checked and taking your high blood pressure medication as prescribed if your pressure is high
  • Getting your cholesterol checked and taking steps to lower it by eating more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains
  • Quitting smoking or chewing tobacco
  • Exercising for 30 minutes or more, at least five days a week

What you eat can make a big difference in preventing heart disease and improving your overall health. Try some of these healthy eating habits:

  • Avoiding processed foods, such as deli meats, sugar-sweetened cereal, and soda
  • Consume foods like beans, peas, lentils, tofu, nuts and seeds
  • Avoid foods high in trans fats, such as margarine and packaged baked goods.
  • Replace red meat with fish or poultry
  • Eat three servings of low-fat or non-fat dairy per day, such as milk, cheese, or yogurt
    • Try non-dairy alternatives such as soy and almond milk
  • Prepare foods with less salt
    • A healthy alternative may be lemon juice, herbs, and spices

IHS is committed to identifying and lowering the instances of heart disease among Tribal members. We are active and dedicated partners in the Million Hearts Campaign, an initiative co-led by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, partnering with federal and state agencies and private organizations to prevent 1 million heart attacks and strokes by 2017. Last year, IHS formalized the hypertension treatment protocol, developed by the Division of Diabetes Treatment and Prevention. The protocol was included in the Improving Patient Care Program model through its Million Hearts Intensive, September - December 2015.

Heart disease is a serious health condition that may be prevented and controlled. Take the time to learn more about how you can make heart-healthy lifestyle choices by eating more fruits and vegetables; being physically active; reducing stress; managing your diabetes; maintaining a healthy weight; and working with your healthcare provider to come up with a prevention and treatment plan that works for you.

As IHS Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Susan V. Karol (Tuscarora Nation) provides medical advice and guidance to the Office of the Director and staff on American Indian and Alaska Native health care policies and issues. She serves as the primary liaison and advocate for IHS field clinical programs and community-based health professionals.

Dr. Susan V. Karol, Chief Medical Officer, Indian Health Service